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One of the most important mitzvoth in the Torah is called the מת מצוה (met mitzvah) – a deceased person whom it is a commandment to bury. Although arranging the burial of our deceased loved ones is obviously a mitzvah, stemming from and, in fact, part and parcel of our personal relationship with the deceased, this commandment refers to a body which no one has come forth to bury, a body with no relatives or loved ones to care for it, and with whom we have no special connection. In such a case, it devolves upon any person who can perform the burial to do so, as soon as possible, even if it means delaying the performance of another commandment. The burial of the body in these circumstances is seen as an imperative, an act which takes precedence over all others.
There are two basic lessons to be drawn from this. One is the respect we must show to human life, any human life, by treating the remains of a person with the utmost care. Human remains are not simply “biological waste”. They are all that is left of a life, of a person, created in God’s image, and, as such, must be respected and cared for, as a mark of our profound concern for each and every person’s humanity, whether we knew that person or not. The fact that doing this mitzvah takes precedence over performing other commandments indicates the preciousness of human life, its overriding value, in the hierarchy of Jewish ethical concerns.
Secondly, this commandment is a lesson in our shared humanity. It is not only the remains of my relatives or loved ones that I am responsible to bury. This responsibility is mine as a person, towards all people, even a total stranger. This teaches me that our humanity is shared; we are all brothers, and we are all responsible to each other for this elementary act of kindness and respect, along with others, during a person's lifetime. The law of the מת מצוה – the imperative to give a decent burial to anyone who needs it, stresses the common bond of life, humanity, and responsibility, which we all share, and places the value of a human life at the very top of the hierarchy of Jewish values.